Questioning Hashem's Justice
On two memorable occasions in Torah, leaders turn to Hashem to question His justice in punishing the innocent. After being told of the impending destruction of Sedom, Avraham cries out to Hashem, "הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" (will you kill the righteous together with the wicked)? Similarly, during the rebellion of Korach, when Hashem tells Moshe to separate from the congregation, "and I will wipe them out", Moshe responds by asking, "הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף"?
Both Avraham and Moshe seem to be bothered by the possibility that Hashem might collectively punish the innocent together with the guilty. It is not clear from either story, though, if this is what Hashem was really intending, nor if He changed His mind in the end.1 Does Hashem agree that collective punishment is wrong or is it actually an integral part of His mode of justice?
Biblical Cases of Collective Punishment
The above cases are by no means the only stories in Tanakh in which there seems to be collective punishment. From the flood in the time of Noach to the present day exile it seems that innocents often suffer with the wicked:
- Divine punishments of Israel – At times, after a part of the nation sins, Hashem seems to mete out undiscriminating punishments to all. For instance, after the spies' report everyone aged twenty and up was decreed to die in the wilderness, apparently regardless of whether they individually joined in the murmurings.
- Divine punishment of Gentiles – Hashem seems to do the same for non Jewish nations, as evidenced by the killing of all the first borns in Egypt even though Paroh, and not they, was the one who decreed slavery.2
- Punishment via nature – Sometimes, Hashem punishes the people by bringing some sort of natural catastrophe such as the famine in the time of David, or plague after the sins of the Golden Calf and Baal Peor. In such cases, unless there is miraculous intervention, it would seem inevitable that some righteous people suffer.
- Divine commands to punish – There are several places in Torah where Hashem commands the people to enact collective punishments on others, such as the law to kill all members of a city of idolaters (עיר נדחת) or the decree to annihilate Amalek and the Seven Nations.
- Vicarious punishment – Perhaps the most troubling of cases is when the sinner himself is left unharmed while others suffer in his stead, as was the case when Akhan took from the prohibited spoils of Yericho and 36 men from the nation died,3 or when Hashem brought plague on Israel when David wrongfully counted the nation.
- Human actions – In addition to the above examples where Hashem plays some role, there are also cases in Tanakh where humans act on their own to punish collectively. Most notable of these is the massacre of the city of Shechem by Shimon and Levi.
All these cases beg the question: Is Hashem really not bothered when innocents suffer for the sins of others? Why is collective punishment justified? And if it is not, how are we to understand these stories?
The concept of collective punishment and reward is intricately related to several other philosophical issues:
- Theodicy – The question of why bad things to good people lies at the core of the problematic of collective punishment.
- Hashem's providence – How does Hashem's providence work? Does He watch every individual and their specific actions or only over the collective? Which side of the debate one takes should naturally affect how ones views collective punishment.
- Reward and Punishment – Do individuals get their just desserts in this world or only in the world to come? Is there a difference between national and individual retribution? Is suffering in this world compensated for after death?
- Collective salvation? Do the same rules apply for both reward and punishment? If an innocent person can share in the punishment of the wicked, can the wicked share in the good fortune of the righteous? [See Avraham's Prayer for Sedom for discussion of the justice or lack thereof in collective salvation, and how it compares to collective punishment.]4
The above examples raise questions not only about the validity of collective punishment but also about its implementation:
- Percentage of guilty – What percentage of the group need be culpable for collective punishment to be enacted? Does it matter whether the guilty party comprises the majority or minority of the group?
- Which sins? Are there specific sins which call for collective punishment while others call for individual retribution?
- Hashem vs. man – Is there a distinction between Divine and human inflicting of punishment?
- Direct vs. natural disaster – Should one distinguish cases in which the group suffers due to the bringing of a natural disaster and those in which Hashem actively targets the collective?